U.K. Supreme Court Considers Government Spying for First Time

(Bloomberg) -- The U.K. Supreme Court will hear arguments about U.K. government hacking for the first time, as a public-interest group seeks to challenge a decision permitting the government to collect large amounts of personal data and communications.

The Supreme Court said last week that it won’t consider hacking in particular at this stage, but whether the tribunal that backed the use of general warrants for mass data collection is subject to judicial review, which allows the decisions of public bodies to be challenged.

Privacy International, which filed the challenge, says mass data collection violates rights to privacy and freedom of expression, while U.K. government lawyers have argued that spy agencies need to be able to collect mass data in order to protect the country against terrorism, espionage and cyber security threats.

Scarlet Kim, legal officer at Privacy International, said that the hearing at the Supreme Court could have a significant collateral impact on the right to privacy. The Investigatory Powers Tribunal, a special court in London that investigates spying cases, “hears complaints against surveillance by various public bodies and their decisions can therefore have a monumental impact,” she said.

The Home Office declined to comment on the Supreme Court application other than to refer to a statement from a high court judgment on a previous privacy case that said “communications data is an essential tool for law enforcement and national security investigations.”

The IPT ruled in 2016 that U.K. spy agencies’ collection of mass data didn’t comply with human rights law until as late as November 2015. The tribunal referred some questions on mass data collection to the European Court of Justice.

Professor Lorna Woods at the University of Essex School of Law said that the IPT had rarely ruled against the government or the security services since it was set up in 2000. Woods said that if is impossible to challenge IPT decisions, “there are effectively going to be some parts of the security service that you can’t challenge.”

Privacy International sued the U.K. government in 2013 after whistle-blower Edward Snowden exposed U.S. and U.K. mass surveillance programs.

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